bureaucracybusters

A CLASH OF TITANS: RFK VS. HOFFA–PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Bureaucracy, History, Law Enforcement, Politics, Social commentary on June 8, 2015 at 12:01 am

Forty-seven years ago today, Senator Robert Francis Kennedy was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetary, only feet away from the grave of his elder brother–President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Campaigning for the Presidency in 1968, he had just won the crucial California primary on June 4–when he was shot in the back of the head.  His killer: Sirhan Sirhan, a young Palestinian furious at Kennedy’s support for Israel.

Eleven years earlier, as a young, idealistic attorney, Kennedy had declared war on James Riddle Hoffa, the president of the Mafia-dominated International Brotherhood of Teamsters Union.

As chief counsel for the Senate Labor Rackets Committee, Kennedy was appalled at the corruption he discovered among high-ranking Teamster officials.  As he saw it, under Hoffa’s leadership, the union was nothing less than “a conspiracy of evil.”

Robert F. Kennedy as Chief Counsel, Senate Labor Rackets Committee

Hoffa, in turn, held an equally unflattering view of Kennedy.  “A rich punk,” said Hoffa, who didn’t know or care about “the average workingman.”

In 1983, Blood Feud, a two-part TV mini-series, depicted the 11-year animosity between Kennedy and Hoffa.  Although it took some dramatic liberties, its portrayal of the major events of that period remains essentially accurate.

Today, labor unions are a rapidly-vanishing species, commanding far less political influence than they did 50 years ago.  As a result, young viewers of this series may find it hard to believe that labor ever held such sway, or that the Teamsters posed such a threat.

James Riddle Hoffa testifying before the Senate Labor Rackets Committee

And in an age when millions see “Big Government” as the enemy by millions, they may feel strong reservations about the all-out war that Robert F. Kennedy waged against Hoffa.

The series opens in 1957, when Hoffa (Robert Blake) is a rising figure within the Teamsters. Kennedy (Cotter Smith) is chief counsel for the Senate Labor Rackets Committee.

At first, Hoffa tries to ingratiate himself with Kennedy, telling him: “I know everybody who can help me and anybody who can hurt me.”

A wily Hoffa decides to parley Kennedy’s anti-corruption zeal into a path to power for himself.  Via his attorney, Eddie Cheyfitz, he feeds Kennedy incriminating evidence against Dave Beck, president of the Teamsters.

Robert Blake as James Hoffa

Confronted with a Senate subpoena, Beck flees the country–paving the way for Hoffa to assume the top position in the union. Hoffa believes he has solved two problems at once.

With the ousting of Beck, Kennedy should now be satisfied: “He’s got his scalp.  Now he can move on to other things while I run the union.”

But Hoffa has guessed wrong–with fatal results. Realizing that he’s been “played” by Hoffa, a furious Kennedy strikes back.

Cotter Smith as Robert Kennedy

He orders increased surveillance of Hoffa and his topmost associates.  He subpoenas union records and members of both the Teamsters and Mafia to appear before his committee in public hearings.

And he tries to enlist the aid of legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Ernest Borgnine).  But Hoover wants no part of a war against organized crime, whose existence he refuses to admit.

Meanwhile, Kennedy’s confrontations with Hoffa grow increasingly fierce. In open hearings, Kennedy accuses Hoffa of receiving kickbacks in the name of his wife. Hoffa damns him for “dirtying my wife’s name.”

Kennedy secures an indictment against Hoffa for hiring a spy to infiltrate the Senate Labor Rackets Committee. He’s so certain of a conviction that he tells the press he’ll “jump off the Capitol building” if Hoffa beats the rap.

But Hoffa’s lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams (Jose Ferrer) puts Kennedy himself on the witness stand.  There he portrays Kennedy as a spoiled rich man who’s waging a vendetta against Hoffa.

Hoffa beats the rap, and offers to send Kennedy a parachute.  But he jokingly warns reporters: “Hey, Bobby, you better have it checked.  I don’t trust myself!”

By 1959, Kennedy’s work as chief counsel for the Senate Labor Rackets Committee is over.  But not his determination to send Hoffa to prison.

Throughout 1960, he manages the Presidential campaign for his brother, John F. Kennedy (Sam Groom).  By a margin of only 100,000 votes, John wins the election.

Hoffa thinks that his troubles are over, that “Bobby” will move on to other pursuits and forget about the Teamsters.

Kennedy moves on to another job–the office of United States Attorney General.  For Hoffa, it’s a nightmare come true.

JFK, needing someone in the Cabinet he can trust completely, browbeats Robert into becoming the the nation’s top cop.

As Attorney General, Kennedy must no longer beg J. Edgar Hoover to attack organized crime.  He can–and does–order him to do so.

Throughout the country, the Mafia feels a new heat as FBI agents plant illegal electronic microphones (“bugs”) in their innermost sanctums.  Agents openly tail mobsters–and send them to prison in large numbers.

And Kennedy sets up a special unit, composed of topflight prosecutors and investigators, to go after just one man: James Riddle Hoffa.  The press comes to call it  the “Get Hoffa” squad.

Hoffa continues to beat federal prosecutors in court.  But he believes he’s under constant surveillance by the FBI, and his nerves are starting to give way.

Convinced that the FBI has bugged his office, he literally tears apart the room, hoping to find the bug.  But he fails to do so.

What he doesn’t know is he’s facing a more personal danger–from one of his closest associates.

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